It is Christmas yet again.
On the one hand the frenzied preparation for the celebrations suggests efforts to reclaim what was lost during the Pandemic years. People really want to make good the loss. On the other hand, is the lingering pain of people who suffered loss during these years saying we would never be able to celebrate again- such was the impact of the loss.
Of the several services I signed up to lead from Advent to Epiphany this year the one that struck my attention most was the Blue Christmas.
Traditionally held on the longest night of the year (December 21-22) it is a very solemn and sombre Eucharist in solidarity with the people who grieve for various reasons.
The Pandemic devastated people – affected the rhythm of families and individuals- and took away several lives. It is when the world around begins to celebrate again that several people would gauge the depth and enormity of the loss and pain that they are going through.
The war in Ukraine and conflicts in different parts of the world did lead to migration and people grieve the loss of their homelands while trying to adjust to their new contexts of living. They are worried about their dear ones left behind and though the slogan around is, “its Christmas anyway”, they are unable to celebrate asking several questions within.
While traditionally Advent season celebrates love, joy, hope and faith there are many people who experience traumatic jolts with love, whose joy was stolen away, who found all their hope being shattered and whose faith went through very turbulent times.
While for some it was loss of health, for others it was loss of dignity and personhood. Some went through horrific experiences of victimisation and then suffered victim blaming and victim shaming. Some went through difficult divorces and breaking up of relationships.
The global economic recession affected jobs and economic stability of several people and the fall out of the pandemic affected mental and emotional health of several others. People in the margins and peripheries, including the physically and mentally challenged and the marginalised communities in the edges suffered much.
Blue Christmas is intended to help people grieve. Pastoral care is basically about ‘crying with’ and this service allows people to cry out aloud or in silence amidst the festivities that is around which is all about noise. The service invites the lonely, the crushed, the heart-broken, the addicted, the estranged, the abused, the victimised, the oppressed, the enslaved, the ones who suffer from war and violence, the sick, the dying and all in pain to ‘Come to the Presence of the Lord and seek the rest that only God can give’. It reaches us to those who mourn, those who are far from home and those devasted by emotional turmoils. Joining them would be many others offering solidarity and acknowledging their own loss and pain though not overwhelming as the others.
The service is centered around a carefully crafted Eucharist liturgy. The Eucharist in itself becomes the symbol of solidarity and hope. And when the congregation says- “Thy Death O Lord We Celebrate” -there is a pause. A pause that asks several questions of that very rich liturgical statement. It is the shadow of the cross made visible over the cradle and remembering death at the occasion of the birth becomes paradoxically very meaningful.
The Scripture portions are carefully chosen to see that even in the time of the birth of the baby there was quite a lot of hidden pain. When Mary choses to accept the will of God realising that she was pregnant, when Joseph accepts the decree of God to hold on to Mary, when they travel at the peak of pregnancy, when they struggle to find a space, when they are overwhelmed by the shepherds, angels and the magi, when they hear of the decree to kill children, when they flee as refugees to a foreign land in fear of the rulers- there is quite a lot of inexplicable pathos and pain. The sword in the soul of Mary is a pointer that the experiences of pain and grief are so intrinsically woven into the infancy narratives but placing it within the tapestry of divine choreography. That gives comfort, courage and hope because Christmas is all about this Jesus and those around him.
Empty chairs are a powerful symbol used in the service. It is intended for those who are not in the service, who are remembered, acknowledged and thanked for. The kingdom hope of the beyond and the not yet that the Christ event made possible is remembered solemnly. Gazing at those empty chairs in itself could be therapeutic. It offers a purging of the suffering within and an opportunity to allow emotions held unexpressed to flow out.
The Advent Wreath for the day would be enriched with candles. Light is offered as a symbol of wholeness and healing. There is a big room for silence in the liturgy. One candle is lit to remember all the dear departed. One candle is lit alongside the advent candles of love, hope, joy and faith to celebrate redemption. The candles acknowledge the suffering around and affirms that God did not wait for the world to be perfectly ready to break into history. God came amidst the suffering and pain of the people with a promise of letting the bound go free.
Sometimes the congregation is also invited to join in lighting a candle of hope, to write down their burdens in a piece of paper as a purging experience and burn them at the altar. They return with a seed or evergreen twig as a symbol of comfort and new beginning.
The Intercession is focussed around the desire that those who are heavy laden would find solace, those who mourn would be comforted, those who hunger and thirst would be satiated, those who journey in darkness will find light. It seeks that all who gather together would find grace to bear suffering with dignity, humility, hope, forgiveness, compassion and truth as was modelled in Christ.
The song selections are carefully done to echo the undergirding theme- root us in your steadfast love and anchor us in your faithful presence.
Yes I look forward to be at the Blue Christmas. To join the affirmation with Lisa Ann Moss (a liturgist) that God came to a world which did not mesh; to heal its tangles and shield its scorn. In the mystery of the Word Made flesh the Maker of stars was born. To share our grief, to touch our pain, to help us rejoice even in brokenness- God Came To Us.